Seven years after Umaru Yar’Adua, another call for constitutionalism
On May 5, 2010, exactly seven years ago today, the death of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, Nigeria’s fourth democratically elected leader, was announced after a protracted illness.
The circumstances of his illness stirred a lot of controversies that exposed the frailty of Nigerian unity along ethnic and religious lines, the weakness of the constitution in handling unprecedented situations and the mistrusts among players in the country’s political field.
Yar’Adua, the taciturn President who is on record to have taken great steps to guarantee the unity of the country and strengthen the economy, passed on at his Aso Rock Villa official residence.
He was said to have died as a result of complications from pericarditis, an unhealthy heart condition which treatment took him to Saudi Arabia where he was on admission at King Faisal Specialist Hospital Jeddah, between November 23, 2009 and February 24, 2010.
During the period of his illness, the Nigerian constitution was put on trial especially as a lot of dusts were raised on what the law says to guarantee smooth governance when a president is incapacitated and how the presidency can continue to operate by transmission of authority to the Vice-President.
Bordering on regional power tussle and mutual suspicions, the controversy which paid little attention to constitutional provisions, caused a great division between the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and pitched members of the civil societies and some vocal elder statesmen who insisted on strict reference to the constitution, against the Abuja power brokers who continued shrouding the president’s condition in secrecy.
Many rights organisations and professional groups including the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), whose then President but now Ondo State governor, Oluwarotimi Akeredolu SAN, stated in a December 2009 statement that Yar’Adua should transfer power to Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan without delay, were in the vanguard of constitutionalism.
The tension generated by the situation almost tore the fragile fabric of unity that held the country together and the Supreme Court, while intervening in the matter, ruled on January 22, 2010, that in accordance with the constitution, the Federal Executive Council (FEC) had 14 days to decide on a resolution on whether the president was “incapable of discharging the functions of his office.”
The apex court also ruled that the FEC should hear testimony from five doctors, one of which must be the president’s personal physician, in taking the decision that was stipulated in Section 144 of the constitution.
Rather than act with a unity of purpose, a great crack appeared on the wall of the FEC when former Minister of Information, Dora Akunyili advised that the cabinet should accept that Yar’Adua was no longer fit to lead. Akunyili had tabled a memo requesting power be handed over to Jonathan. Some members of the cabinet who didn’t want a transfer of power allegedly shouted down the motion.
Before the apex court pronouncement, a flurry of judicial activities began on December 23 when a case was filed urging Yar’Adua to step down. This was followed by two additional cases filed by some rights groups on January 5, 2010 demanding that the president should be declared missing.
After granting a controversial interview to a foreign media from his sick bed on January 12, which followed several trips to the Arabian country by prominent Nigerians, the cabinet declared the president fit to continue in office and by the end of the month, a Federal High Court in Abuja ruled that there was no need for formal transfer of power to Jonathan.
The court said there was no constitutional requirement for the president to hand over power to his deputy and that the vice-president can only act on his behalf.
However on February 10, the Senate, relying on a “doctrine of necessity,” a legislative contraption by the upper chamber, transferred presidential powers to Jonathan and declared him as Acting President pending the full recovery of Yar’Adua,
The decision immediately doused the tension and brought some sanity to government operations even though the president’s influence still hovered around the corridors of power in the shadowy figures of the powerful elements that showed allegiance only to the Northern political bloc.
INCIDENTALLY Nigeria seemed to have found itself in the same scenario with the current state of health of President Muhammadu Buhari also raising similar dusts and generating equal tensions even though to a lesser degree.
Like the Yar’Adua era, the nature of the illness of the president is being shrouded and he has been off the public space since his return from a 49-day medical vacation in London.
But unlike Yar’Adua, Buhari, while embarking on the trip, wrote to the Senate to transfer presidential authority to Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo and on his return, gave indication that the latter would still have to continue with the reins of government until his full recovery.
And while attempts were being made by presidential media handlers like in the past to play the ostrich in the disclosure of Buhari’s state of health, the President himself announced that he was ill and that he trusted in the system to continue to function even as he excused himself from duty.
Two incidents have however indicated that the country has not learnt any lesson from the negative fallouts of the power intrigues that accompanied Yar’Adua’s ill health. The First Lady, Aisha Buhari, who has announced that the President is not as sick as the rumour mill is presenting to the public, once came out to allege that some forces have hijacked her husband for selfish political reasons. Mrs Buhari, who also unlike Yar’Adua’s wife, Binta, refused to be counted on the side of the “cabal,” warned that Nigerians might be denied the good intentions of her husband as long as those elements continue to hold on to him.
Last Monday’s statement by the pioneer Chairman of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Chief Bisi Akande, also warned that the President’s illness is being feasted on by those who don’t want the progress of the country and that a full disclosure of the situation should be made to avert a major crisis that could threaten the survival of Nigeria as a nation.
In the statement, Akande who is believed to be speaking the mind of a major power bloc in the country said, “The greatest danger however is for political interests at the corridor of power attempting to feast on the health of Mr President in a dangerous manner that may aggravate the problems between the Executive and the National Assembly without realizing if, in the end, it could drag the entire country into avoidable doom.
“To avoid the ugly consequences of letting President Buhari’s ailments throw Nigeria into confusion, I am urging all Nigerians to begin to pray for his divine healing and perfect recovery.
“Let me warn today that those who wish to harvest political gains out of the health of the President are mistaken. This is not Nigeria of 1993. We are in a new national and global era of constitutionalism and order. We hope Nigerians have enough patience to learn from history. My greatest fear, however, is that the country should not be allowed to slide into anarchy and disorder of a “monumental proportion.”
While Nigerians across tribes and religions have continued to pray that the country would not go through another Yar’Adua experience and the rights groups have not been as vociferous as they were in earlier case despite some incendiary statements by some zealots in the social media, major stakeholders are calling for recourse to the full implementation of constitutional provisions to avoid another unnecessary controversy that could heat the polity.
The meeting last Monday in Minna, Niger State, of former Heads of State, Olusegun Obasanjo, Ibrahim Babangida and Abdusalaam Abubakar, is regarded as parts of consultations across the nation to prevent the situation from sliding into the kind of crisis that Akande was apprehensive of.
Speaking to The Guardian on the issue yesterday, Lagos State PDP governorship candidate in 2015, Jimi Agbaje, prayed for the family of the late president but wished that Nigeria never witnessed what it went through during the period of Yar’Adua illness.
According to him, “The constitution is very clear and the onus is on those at the corridor of power to follow it explicitly now that President Buhari is going through trial time over his health.
“Buhari had done the needful when it was necessary by transferring power to his vice but now that he is back and we are told he is fit to continue the most important thing is honesty. Those managing him should be more faithful to the country unlike what happened during Yar’Adua.”
He said it was unfortunate Nigeria is going through this scenario again but it depends on how faithful we are to the country. “I hope some people would not be acting in the name and on behalf of the president contrary to the constitution when they know he is ill and incapable. We have been told he is alright and we want to take them for their words.”
The Secretary-General of United Niger Delta Energy Development Security Strategy (UNDEDSS), Tony Uranta described Yar’Adua as a man of good intention who really meant well for the country but could not actualize his dreams and visions due to ill health.
Uranta said Nigeria however failed to learn any lesson from the circumstances that surrounded Yar’Adua’s illness and absence from the country while he was undergoing treatment abroad, saying “we did not lean from the circumstances, what preceded his illness and the consequences of Yar’Adua in this present circumstances.”
According to him, “Nearly exactly the same situation we experienced under Yar’Adua is playing out but as I wished the former president well, so we wish Buhari well but the onus is on him to take time to attend to his health and hand over power to Osinbajo for the country to move on.
“There is no reason Buhari cannot hand over because that was exactly what he suggested when Yar’Adua was ill and undergoing treatment. There should be no fear that his vice will sabotage him because the man has proved his commitment and loyalty.”
Former governor of Kaduna State, Alhaji Balarabe Musa, said he would only pray for good health for Buhari and repose for the soul of Yar’Adua adding however that the country continues on the path of growth and development.